Douglas Rushkoff Talks Digital Technology on Steroids [Interview]

Written by Megan Simpson | Friday Oct 2nd, 2015

2016 Featured Speaker Douglas Rushkoff. Photo by Eat Agency Confirmed Featured Speaker and bestselling author Douglas Rushkoff is set to launch his new book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus at SXSW Interactive 2016. He is a Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens and also lectures about media, society, and economics around the world. Be sure to attend his session and grab your copy before everyone else!

SXSW: Tell us more about what your new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.
Rushkoff: [The book is] about how mindless growth became the enemy of true prosperity. We are programming the digital economy for the extractive, expansionist values of corporatism, rather than the more distributed possibilities of a digital age. People are frustrated, but don't know how to express the problem – thus, the title. It's a reference to the San Francisco residents who are being priced out of their homes by commuting Googlers.

SXSW: What are your goals for the book? How do you believe readers will respond to its contents?
Rushkoff: I want to change the way people build companies – especially digital ones. I'm hoping to convince people [that] it's more fun to build a company you want to keep, rather than one [you want] to flip. I'm hoping people adopt some of the ideas I've shared for how to create value by letting others create value, too – to circulate money instead of hoarding it. To reprogram the economy for human goals instead of just putting 13th Century, anti-p2p values on digital steroids.

SXSW: In your last book, Present Shock, you wrote about the human response to living in a digital world where everything is always on. Can you explain how that impacts us? Do you see it affect you personally? How?
Rushkoff: Well, even in Present Shock I was arguing that the always-on world of perpetual interruption has less to do with our technologies than the way they're being programmed. They are the expressions of business plans, not human need. So we all – me included – end up using devices and apps that are programmed to extract value from us as time or data. The main impact on us is to challenge our sense of purpose and direction – and for those of us involved in technology, this then leads us to develop for short-term needs. We all want to hit it big on some level, and then exit the story. We have low tolerance for open-endedness, but that's the way real, sustainable life works.

SXSW: You first spoke at SXSW in 1997. What is your most memorable moment from that year?
Rushkoff: I did a talk called Why Futurists Suck. The moment I remember: I was going up an escalator while Marc Canter (founder of Macromedia) was coming down. I asked him what he was speaking about, and he said, "How I started this whole thing." Either that, or R. U. Sirius's girlfriend Eve getting in an argument with Bruce Sterling's doormat.

SXSW: What do you know now, that you wish you had known then?
Rushkoff: Back in 1997 I didn't realize how completely the market could swallow the net and our society. I actually announced the dotcom crash of 2000 in my 1997 talk. Pegged it as February 2000 when it really happened in March. People laughed, like I was being ridiculous. After all, Wired had just told us we were in the Long Boom! But where I was wrong is that I thought a true net culture – what I called "social media" – would come and replace the electronic strip mall of the web. Instead, social media apps turned out to be new forms of marketing. I didn't expect a generation of kids looking for new ways to sell out.

SXSW: How have you seen SXSW grown since 1999? What surprises you the most about the Festival, and what excites you about the future of the event?

Rushkoff: I've seen it grow too much, in some ways. It used to be the little nerd fest alongside the film and music festivals. When you'd say, "I'm going to SXSW" and then added the "interactive" part, it was as if you weren't even going to the real SXSW. That's certainly changed.

It does get a little commercial and overwhelming now, with the giant sponsored parties. In some ways it's just an indication of how our little fringe media has moved center stage. But it just takes a little digging and you end up at a little bar where everyone from Joi Ito to John Barlow is hanging. I see great friends at South By, who I wouldn't even have remembered to call if I hadn't actually run into them.
As far as the future, well, I guess I want SXSW to save the net, and thus the world. How about that?

SXSW: How has the typical SXSW Interactive attendees changed over the years?
Rushkoff: They're richer, better dressed, and actually less likely to know how to program!

SXSW: Who is the most interesting speaker or most interesting person you have met at your various times participating at SXSW?
Rushkoff: I'll always remember SXSW as the place I finally met Bruce Sterling.

SXSW: I’ve read that you were previously skeptical of social media. Is that still true? Can you explain your decision to leave Facebook in 2013, and your relationship with social media now?
Rushkoff:I was originally really excited about the possibilities of social media. I was talking about it as far back as 1995, in an article for Upside about "What's Next." I still think social media would be a great thing. Facebook isn't social, so it really doesn't deserve the moniker. I don't like it because I'm not into writing consumer profiles of myself. I can feel the gears of manipulation, social control, and data mining all clicking into place as I do anything at all on there – the same way people feel it watching a really predictable three-act movie. And as someone who argues for appropriate uses of digital media, I can't in good conscience invite people to "like" my page when I know that simply makes them more vulnerable to abuse.
I think the WELL was more social than Facebook. The WELL used technology to promote social relationships. Facebook uses social relationships to sell its technology.

SXSW: You recently composed a video blog about why our society loves post-apocalyptic zombie shows. In it, you discuss that in our nonstop world of emails, phones and social media, we’ve devalued the ‘human,’ and therefore this type of alternate reality is actually relaxing. What harm do you see stemming from this kind of thinking?
Rushkoff: What harm? Remember – it's you asking about the harm, here. I don't think zombies are harmful. I think they're more indicative of our own apocalyptic drive. When we think of things in those terms, we are less likely to take the smaller, incremental steps we need to make the world a better place. We look instead toward giant, one-size-fits-all, universal solutions. And they never work. They are distractions.

SXSW: What can we do, as a society, to live more in the moment and free ourselves from our technology?
Rushkoff: I don't know that you need to free yourself from technology to live in the moment. I mean, you can wear shoes and be in the moment, right? We have to free ourselves from business plans that have become social norms. I felt so bad as the Pope went through crowds of teens, hoping to shake hands or look in their eyes – and most of them were too busy Instagraming to look up. It was tragic.
All we have to do is learn to look into one another's eyes. That's such a big step, and really hard for people who haven't been doing it. You ask, what can we do as a society - and I'm not sure we do this as a society. I think we do this as individuals and small groups. Living in the moment doesn't "scale."

SXSW: Do you think the concept of “dystopian future” is overused? Do you resent being categorized within this genre?
Rushkoff: I don't think I've been categorized in this genre, so I don't resent it. I'm about the most optimistic thinking person I know. I still believe we can survive another century. Unless you think that enjoying the real – the flesh, the social, and contact – is somehow dystopian? Only to someone with all their money invested in the worst forms of social media. They'd definitely see a future where people are engaging with each other in the real world as a form of dystopia. How does one monetize that?

SXSW: Will robot-written/computer-composed books eventually make human authors obsolete?
Rushkoff: That's kind of like asking if technology will eventually make life obsolete. I guess if you see books as an industrial product, sure. Human writers will be obsolete. If you see books as a form of connection between people, than the people part of that equation can't be eliminated. You'd also have to be living in a world where people care about what machines have to say. Or maybe the readers will be obsolesced by machines, as well?

SXSW: Do you look forward to the future? What things about it energize you the most?
Rushkoff: Honestly, I'm most interested to watch the world wean itself of corporate capitalism. People don't realize how recently it was invented, and for whose benefit. Even the biggest investors have no sense of how inefficient and extractive it needs to be. Imagining a world where people do things in order to exchange value instead of doing them to extract profit? That energizes me.
I'm also interested to see how we handle climate change. It should work better than aliens at united humanity against a common vulnerability.

SXSW: What is the last book you read and why?
Rushkoff: I have not read my last book, yet. It would be an interesting question, interpreted like that, though, huh? What is the last book you intend to read? Like, on your deathbed? But to answer, the book I most recently finished was a collection called The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. I read it because I wanted to hear all the arguments at once, and get filled with great, arguable examples of why and how a managed commons actually works. That whole "tragedy of the commons" meme is just plain wrong.

SXSW: What is the last movie you saw and why?
Rushkoff: I watched Alex Garland's Ex Machina, on my laptop. Alex is an old friend from those 1990s we were talking about before. And I really wanted to see how the guy who revived the zombie apocalypse would handle AI. Of course, he did it brilliantly and quietly.

SXSW: What is the last best place you traveled to and why?
Rushkoff: Last and best. The mind reels at such superlatives. I went to Zurich last month and it was pretty superb. It's like a paradise as far as standard of living, the air, and trees that aren't dying from kudzu. Amazingly, they were all complaining all the time. I wanted to whack them on the head.

SXSW: What is your favorite place to eat in Austin?
Rushkoff: I guess the Gospel breakfast at Threadgills was my favorite ever Austin meal. But now I'm vegetarian, so I don't know. Probably Arlo's because it makes me feel connected to something.

SXSW: What is your favorite meal / favorite place to eat outside of Austin?
Rushkoff: Right now, it's a Chinese place called Biang! in Flushing, close to where I teach at Queens College new Media and Social Change masters program. But you have to actually eat the food to know what it tastes like.

See Douglas Rushkoff live and in person – and other 2016 confirmed Featured Speakers – at SXSW Interactive in March, register to attend before October 23 before registration costs go up.

2016 Featured Speaker Douglas Rushkoff. Photo by Eat Agency